Rock fans get nearly all of their music in canned form — on records, radio or television — and grow accustomed to hearing a song in just one version. For familiarity's sake, many bands re-create their records when they perform onstage. But Elvis Costello and his four-piece band, the Attractions, defied their own recordings for most of their concert Saturday at Forest Hills Stadium.
They tore apart both new and old songs — turning rockers into ballads and ballads into funk tunes, adding crescendos and sudden hushes and shifty rhythms, rearranging straight-ahead tunes as roller coasters.
Mr. Costello has determinedly explored rock and pop genres; his records have delved into garage-band rock, soul, elaborate Beatles-influenced productions and folk-rock derived from Bob Dylan. Backed by the Attractions, he has devoted full concerts to country singing and pop crooning; more recently, he played a solo show like a folksinger, accompanied only by his own guitar. Meanwhile, his 10th and 11th albums, Punch the Clock and the new Goodbye Cruel World, unveil a punctilious pop style, with instrumental hooks tucked in and around every line of lyrics.
Having warmed up all those approaches, Mr. Costello and the Attractions seem to be bursting with the impulse to mix and match. The first part of his two-hour show had the heady unpredictability of any good improvisatory music. The Attractions clearly knew where the songs were headed, but every new turn was a surprise for the audience, from the twitchy bass line that underlined the words "invisible shivers" in "Watching the Detectives" to Mr. Costello's choppy singing in "Shabby Doll."
As jazz musicians know, experiments in rhythm and phrasing serve to torture-test a song. Mr. Costello's reworkings sometimes obscured his pointed, associative lyrics and showed the limits of his abilities as a melodist. There were also times that the band simply seemed to be doodling away. But Mr. Costello's willingness to kick around his own tunes is something more bands should consider.
After 1¼ hours of shaking up the repertory, the group walked offstage. Mr. Costello returned alone, with his guitar, to play a country song and a slowed-down revision "Peace in Our Time." Then, joined by the Attractions, he ran through record-perfect versions of "The Only Flame in Town" and "Everyday I Write the Book" — his two hit singles in the United States — as if to prove that the Attractions could, after all, be a typical pop band.
Nick Lowe and his Cowboy Outfit played a jaunty opening set. Like Mr. Costello, Mr. Lowe has a collector's grasp of pop styles; he has lately been leaning toward rockabilly, swamp-rock and country two-steps. Mr. Lowe also has a melodic facility that Mr. Costello lacks. But except for a rare song like "Cracking Up," Mr. Lowe sticks to jokey lyrics, and his songs stay cheerfully superficial.